| Magazine Feature |

Don’t Call Him a Rebbe

In the heart of Tel Aviv, Rav Mordechai Auerbach leads a community of baalei teshuvah out of a chassidic shul

Photos: Matisyahu Goldberg, Rabbi Aharon Goldberg archives


Until a few years ago, each one of the young bochurim now standing in a row had studied at a regular chassidic cheder.

But along the way, something imploded. Today, we know that the issue has a name: the second generation of baalei teshuvah. But then, it was a rift and a crisis of trust between parents who had made their way back to their heritage, and the staff and administrators of the schools they aspired to, who had been used to a different, more traditional style of parents, not completely ready for this new demographic.

This early struggle of the kiruv movement was proof to those who thought outreach needed to be approached a bit differently. The baal teshuvah family needed a support system, a comprehensive network for the road ahead.

Once the issue was identified, change could happen. A new cheder opened. The hanhalah, most of the rebbeim, and all the students were members of this second generation. Here, everyone spoke the same language.

And now they had gathered, after a long and painful year of coronavirus, for a fundraiser that turned into a celebration — an event that peaked when the Rav himself stood up. He came over to each of the boys, like a loving shepherd gathering his flock, taking each one by the hand, sharing a private joke.

They walked up to the stage, these boys who’d struggled and faltered, as their parents looked on in amazement. The music began to play and the loving father figure took his children and began to dance — sort of like a chassidic mitzvah tantz with a dedicated shepherd and his pure Jewish souls. And as they watched, the parents who’d given up so much to be part of the Torah community now knew they had an answer for the next generation as well.

The dance, perhaps more than anything, tells the little-known story of the Abir Yaakov community in central Tel Aviv. Even more, it is the story of their unique leader, Rav Mordechai Auerbach, and perhaps also the story of the piercing dilemma faced by baalei teshuvah in our generation.

Am Yisrael’s Rebbe

This isn’t a community that advertises, and if you’re not looking carefully, you might even miss the shul. Heading southeast from Dizengoff, once you cross the gentrifying Shenkin Street and upmarket Rothschild Boulevard, the scenery changes as the shops, cafés, and grit of the city center give way to shady residential streets. Turning onto Rechov Olifant, an unmarked side street, you won’t find any signs, just some wrought-iron letters noting that this is the Beis Knesses Le’zecher Kedoshei Antopol. Even the commemorations inside the shul are more reminiscent of the headstones in an ancient cemetery. But the light is intense.

The shul is located in what residents call the “ghetto,” a visibly religious enclave in downtown Tel Aviv. The boys playing outside the shul have peyos, the girls are undoubtedly from Bais Yaakov. In one building lives the dayan of the Belzer community; next door is an avreich in Rav Auerbach’s kollel.

But if walking into the ghetto is an adjustment, entering the shul itself is like walking into a different world. The beams of colored light that filter through the stained-glass windows highlight an intense ruchniyus. But it doesn’t have the feel of a kiruv minyan; slow and intense, this could be a yeshivah community anywhere in the world — anywhere but Tel Aviv.

The architect of all this is one man, Rav Mordechai Auerbach. Heir to Yerushalmi aristocracy, he’s spent most of his adult life in Tel Aviv, where decades of leadership has created a community of baalei teshuvah that anchors the city. In the process he has become “Am Yisrael’s rebbe,” whose influence goes far beyond his own community.

Rav Mordechai Auerbach, Rav Shlomo Zalman’s sixth son. The voice is his, but the smile is his father’s, and the background hum is straight out of the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of his youth.

Made in Heaven  

In Adar 5704/1944, the venerated Yerushalmi posek from Shaarei Chesed, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l, was informed of the birth of his sixth son. In the spirit of Purim, the child was named Mordechai, which was also the name of an uncle of the family, Rav Mordechai Liber Porush. Like the other Auerbach children, Reb Mordechai was sent to study in Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, and then, like some of his brothers, went on to learn in the small yeshivah on the hill in the settlement of Bnei Brak. In Ponevezh, he blossomed under the tutelage of Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, and ybl”c, Rav Gershon Edelstein.

Chassidic roots are part of the history of the Auerbach family, starting with the Toldos Yaakov Yosef of Polonoya zy”a. It’s said that Rav Mordechai, a ninth-generation direct descendent, knows all the writings of the Toldos by heart. His grandfather, mekubal Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach, still grasped onto chassidus, but his son Rav Shlomo Zalman already considered himself part of the Yerushalmi Perushim community.

But talmidim of the era recall the bochur with the chassidic fire who felt drawn to the tish of the elder rebbe of the Ruzhin dynasty, Rav Avraham Yaakov Friedman, the Abir Yaakov of Sadigura. Mordechai Auerbach went to Sadigura three times a year, on 3 Cheshvan, the yahrtzeit of Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin; on Chanukah; and on 19 Kislev, the yahrtzeit of the Maggid of Mezritch.

Rabbi Aharon Goldberg, a grandson of Rav Shlomo Zalman and a son of his son-in-law Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, who passed away last year, relates a story he heard from the Zeide. Rav Shlomo Zalman described how one Chol Hamoed Pesach, he was sitting at home when he suddenly heard knocking at the door. The Ponevezher Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, had come from Bnei Brak to visit. “I ushered the Rav inside and offered him something to eat,” Rav Shlomo Zalman recalled, “but he declined. When I tried to understand why, he surprised me and said: ‘I’ll tell you a secret. I have only one kidney, and I am very careful about every single thing I put in my mouth.’ ”

“At the time, that was not common, and my zeide was a bit alarmed,” Rabbi Goldberg reflects, “but the Rav reassured him and said, ‘Chazal teach us that the kidneys advise man. Imagine if, when I decided to establish Ponevezh, I would have consulted with both my kidneys. Clearly, one of them would have prevented me from doing it. And it would have been right, because it was an unreasonable shtus…. Therefore, there was a miracle done for me when my voice of reason was taken from me.’  ”

At this point, the Ponevezher Rav began to speak about the purpose of his visit. “I have an excellent shidduch for your son Mordechai. The granddaughter of Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Kopycznitzer Rebbe from America — the daughter of his son-in-law Rav Aharon Lemberger.” The Ponevezher Rav went on to extoll the Rebbe’s praises. “If there were a heavenly decree that every person had to have a rebbe, I would choose the Kopycznitzer Rebbe,” the Ponovezher Rav told him.

For Mordechai Auerbach, it was like marrying the granddaughter of his own rebbe — the families were not only related, the Lembergers had grown up in the Abir Yaakov’s home.

It started back in Vienna, Austria, after the First World War. Vienna had become a city of refuge for many, including two rebbes who were also brothers-in-law: the Kopycznitzer Rebbe and the Abir Yaakov of Sadigura. The brothers-in-law had a deep fondness for one another, to the extent that because the Rebbe of Sadigura did not have children, his brother-in-law decided to give him two of his own daughters to raise in his home.

Then the ground began to burn. It was 1938. In a humiliating scene, the regal Rebbe of Sadigura was commanded to sweep the streets. At the time, the tzaddik raised his eyes Heavenward and promised, “Hashem, if I merit to get out of here and go to Eretz Yisrael, I will scrub the streets there with the greatest love.”

The will of the tzaddik was fulfilled. With the intervention of a number of askanim, the Rebbe and his family were able to obtain certificates to go to Eretz Yisrael. (The Kopyczniter Rebbe meanwhile made his way to America.) Of all the cities in the land, the Rebbe chose to settle in Tel Aviv. When asked why he didn’t go to Jerusalem, he said he preferred a Jewish city, secular as it was, that did not have any churches. Thus, he settled in a rented apartment at 27 Nachmani Street, which became the center of the postwar Sadigura court.

And each morning at dawn, the Rebbe would walk out of his house, back erect, as he swept the corner of the Nachmani and Achad Ha’am Streets, keeping his promise.

The Kopycznitzer Rebbe’s two daughters made the journey from Vienna to Tel Aviv with their adoptive father. In time, they both established prominent homes. Batsheva married Rav Aharon Dovid Flintenstein (parents of the current Kopycznitzer Rebbe in Jerusalem), and Malka married Rav Aharon Lemberger.

Within a few days, the shidduch was finalized.

The Kopycznitzer Rebbe lived in America, but ahead of the wedding, he came for a visit. (He visited Eretz Yisrael many times in his work with Chinuch Atzmai and other organizations he spearheaded.) “About two weeks before the wedding,” Rabbi Goldberg relates, “the Rebbe came for his first ‘official’ visit to my grandfather’s house in Shaarei Chesed as a mechutan.”

Those years, even a distinguished rebbe from America did not come with a driver, but with a regular taxi. “While sitting with his mechutan, they suddenly heard a honk from outside the window,” Rabbi Goldberg relates. “The Rebbe and those with him realized it was the taxi driver, so they hastened to wrap up the visit and go outside. My zeide and his family escorted him. But when they came outside, they realized it wasn’t their cab.

“They waited on the stairs for the right taxi to come, and my zeide, concerned about the honor of the Rebbe, asked someone to bring him a chair. But the Rebbe refused. He said, ‘I have been taught by my holy forbears, that a person has to look as if there is a mirror in front of him. When I look at the mirror, how will it appear if I’m sitting and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is standing?’ ”

(As a side note, Rabbi Goldberg mentions that this story came back to him years later. “When I was learning in Kol Torah,” he says, “they did renovations and installed a few mirrors near the sinks. But there was one zealous bochur who didn’t think it appropriate and broke all the mirrors. Later that night, I came to my zeide’s house and told him, and he was very distraught. ‘Not always is a mirror a bad thing,’ he said. ‘I heard myself from the Kopycznitzer Rebbe that every person needs to live as though he has a mirror in front of his eyes.’ ”)

At the end of the wedding, the rebbes from Beis Ruzhin on the kallah’s side wanted to fulfill the minhag of mitzvah tantz. According to Rabbi Goldberg, “My zeide would never prevent anyone from upholding the minhag, but he traveled back to Jerusalem before the mitzvah tantz.”

Keep My Shul Alive

Initially, the young couple lived on Rashbam Street in Bnei Brak, near the Steipler Gaon. But a few years later, they moved to Tel Aviv. The move was a closure of sorts for his wife’s family.

In his will, the Abir Yaakov, who passed away in 1961, made a small request: “To try and preserve the continued existence of the beis medrash. For at least one year.”

The request was honored by his adopted son-in-law, Rav Aharon Lemberger, assisted by the brother of the Abir Yaakov, Rav Shlomenyu of Sadigura, who conducted tishen and tefillos. But Rav Aharon’s tenure was brief. In 1968, he passed away at a young age, leaving a number of unmarried children. Now the burden of leading the shul fell on his young son-in-law, Rav Mordechai Auerbach, who, at the time, was still sitting and learning in Bnei Brak. For Rav Mordechai, moving to Tel Aviv wasn’t even a question; he and his wife picked up and moved the few kilometers to a different world. The first order of business was to take the orphaned family under his wing, and then he made sure to open a high-level kollel of lamdanim there.

While until the 1960s there were still chassidic courts in Tel Aviv, in time, the city’s character changed entirely. The older people slowly disappeared, and shuls closed one by one.

By the 1980s, the Sadigura community had also shrunk, and a new, central beis medrash opened in Bnei Brak. The Auerbach family was also on the verge of picking up and moving away — and then the first surprise occurred.

At the beginning of the 1980s, when many kiruv organizations were active in Tel Aviv, newly minted baalei teshuvah were looking not only for someone to teach them, but for a place to call home. They found both with Rav Auerbach.

Rav Mordechai himself had never actively engaged in outreach, but one day, as he was learning between Minchah and Maariv, two young baalei teshuvah entered the shul. They looked at the venerable Rav, who smiled at them — that warm, sunshine Auerbach smile. He didn’t engage them in conversation, yet something about him captivated them. The next day, they came again. They got another smile and some more silence. This went on for a week, until they approached the Rav and asked to set up a chavrusa. And when a Jew asks to learn, you can’t refuse him. But for Rav Mordechai, it wasn’t outreach or kiruv — it was just good middos and bein adam l’chaveiro.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“He became a father and mother figure to them,” explains Moshe, an elderly veteran of the neighborhood who’s known Rav Auerbach since he moved there. “They ate with him on Shabbos and then, when they got married, they went back as young couples.”

Decades later, this tradition is going strong. Every Shabbos, Rav Auerbach hosts up to 30 guests in his house — baalei teshuvah, couples from the community, and beyond.

Today, the Rav’s home has become a full-fledged kehillah. A midweek visit reveals a minyan downstairs and a dynamic beis medrash upstairs. Avreichim from the community’s kollel sit next to students from the Nefesh Yehudi outreach organization. Rav Auerbach himself gives shiurim around the clock: to avreichim, beginners, and working men. Tens of families live around the shul. Another group has moved about 15 minutes away, to Yad Eliyahu in South Tel Aviv, where prices are a third cheaper. Yet they are drawn back to this hive of activity, walking in to learn and daven with the Rav.

“Rav Auerbach sits and learns and serves Hashem, and individuals come to learn with him. They’re changed by the power of his personal example.” His secret is something he got from his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman ztz”l. “People were drawn to Rav Shlomo Zalman’s famous he’aras panim,” says Moshe. “Rav Auerbach also has this — people are drawn to him.”

“We’re not a community of kiruv activists,” says a young married man who was drawn to Rav Mordechai while single. “I believe that when a person like the Rav brings his own avodah to others, he generates an energetic force that draws souls to him. It’s like a very powerful magnetic field.”

Rav Auerbach, for his part, isn’t interested in numbers. “The Rav is in no rush. You can spend a long time here, and all you’ll get is a smile. It takes time.”

And that might be one of the most fundamental things about Rav Mordechai Auerbach’s worldview: A good thing has to come from deep in the heart. “I was here a few months ago with my son,” a young man relates. “The Rav gave him chocolate. And like a good father, I hurried to tell him to say thank you. The Rav stopped me and said that it’s not right to be mechanech that way. A thank-you has to come from the heart of the child. There’s no point in him parroting something that an adult forces him to say.”

He Doesn’t “Do Kiruv”

What appears to be distance, maybe even a certain aloofness, is only during the initial stage, explains a longtime follower. Rav Mordechai never rushes out to “do kiruv.”

“But once you’re in the community,” he says, “the Rav becomes your personal father and mother. There are things about me that my parents don’t know, but he does.”

These people actually shy away from the term “kehillah.” “There’s nothing official here,” this fellow says. “We’re just lots of individuals, Jews who are trying to find the truth path.”

But the magnetic field kept drawing in more Jews. They came close to Torah, and they built families. And thus, without anyone planning it, Reb Mordechai became a rebbe.

It wasn’t easy. “There were years when it was a real spiritual mesirus nefesh,” his nephew Rabbi Aharon Goldberg recalls. “We would sometimes spend Shabbos there. While he’d sit in his dining room for the Shabbos seudah, the zemiros would be competing with the television news blaring from the other apartments.”

But Rav Mordechai always had the quiet support of his father in Jerusalem. Sometimes Rabbi Goldberg would travel with his zeide, Rav Shlomo Zalman, to Tel Aviv. He remembers the summer of 1992, when Rav Mordechai’s kehillah moved to their current shul, Kedoshei Antopol, which had nearly shrunk into oblivion. At the time, they got an approval to take over the women’s section. “Rav Shlomo Zalman came to Minchah and then we drank a l’chayim,” he says.

“Twice a year, on Pesach and Succos, the Auerbach family from Tel Aviv would come back to Shaarei Chesed, as long as Rav Shlomo Zalman was alive (he passed away in 1995). It was a practical consideration, says Rabbi Goldberg. “My uncle had no place to make a succah where he lived, so he’d stay with Zeide until Erev Simchas Torah, and then he returned to lead his community.”

Today, though, it’s different. The community is a cohesive whole and everyone stays put. And Rav Mordechai himself has come to appreciate the different hues of the city. “Here you can live your own life without getting into struggles about different shittos and streams,” he says.

Still, how do community members raise children in a city that has such a standout secular flavor? It’s a question that every member of the kehillah answers differently. A young bochur whose parents are Rav Mordechai’s chassidim says it’s not so complicated. “I hardly go out to the street. B’ezras Hashem, when I get married, I’ll try to give my children this gift of growing up inside the house.”

There are those who believe that Tel Aviv is an excellent place to raise children. “Here things are clear,” says one community member. “You know exactly who you are. In chareidi cities, everyone is dressed the same so it’s hard to identify who everyone really is. And the first rule that the Rav teaches us, and not only with words, but with his very being, is that we must learn to live with people who are different. We have an understanding of the secular position — many of us come from there. We live among them and try to serve as role models that it’s possible to live otherwise. That chareidim are also just regular people. Just being around is the greatest form of kiruv.”

Still, outside of the shul is a vast city that is basically hostile to the values taught within. What is the secret to surviving in this environment?

“That’s what Rav Aharon Leib Steinman once asked me,” Rav Auerbach says. “ ‘How can you raise children in Tel Aviv?’ I told him that in Bnei Brak children know where Rechov Shenkin is, but my children don’t.”

Perhaps that best encapsulates this unusual rav’s philosophy. Segregation from what lies outside, but an open door and a warm welcome to those who come inside. Litvishe lomdus, chassidic warmth — and a unique ability to build and understand the nascent baal teshuvah.

Different Worlds

Is Rav Mordechai Auerbach chassidish? That’s certainly the impression given on Shabbos morning, when 70 people gather around a tish-like setup, with a shtreimel-wearing Rav Auerbach at the head of the table. And Rav Mordechai himself took over the rabbanus of the Sadigura community from his father-in-law, Rav Lemberger, and the minhagim practiced there come from Sadigura.

Part of the initial appeal, says Moshe, his longtime acquaintance, was that this was a chassidishe shtibel. “He’s a chassid, but he’s also a rebbe of a very unusual type.” He’s referring to the fact that so many groups are close to Rav Auerbach, despite the fact that they come from different worlds. “Rav Zander, the Gerrer dayan in Tel Aviv, is close to him. He also says a shiur in Maaleh Eliyahu, a local hesder yeshivah. He’s the posek of Hatzolah and the nasi of the Central Taharas Hamishpacha organization whose offices are located in Jerusalem. Because he’s unconnected to politics or any particular stream, he has authority far beyond his own community.”

This ability to understand all sorts of people is echoed by Elad Narkis, a member of Rav Mordechai’s kollel, who joined the community about ten years ago.

“I lived in Manhattan for two years, where I was involved in event production,” he says. “Then at age 25 a friend brought me to see Rav Auerbach. What is special here is that the Rav allows people to do teshuvah in a very natural way; not to totally disconnect from their past. For example, if a person connects to Hashem through film or music — as long as it is kosher — that’s good.”

Because Rav Auerbach doesn’t see himself as a rebbe, or even a leader, his day is a blend of shiurim and receiving the public. “But it’s not like an official reception, where you come and there’s a gabbai coordinating it,” says one kehillah member. “You simply notice an available moment and approach him. His shiurim are also more like a chavrusashaft with a few people together. In general, the entire concept of ‘rav’ and ‘talmidim’ just doesn’t hold here. Until a few years ago, the Rav himself would often take his short rest on a folding bed in the corner of the shul.”

The “rebbe” part comes flowing out primarily on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim. “He is simply burning with the holiness of Shabbos,” says a talmid. But he certainly doesn’t set himself up as a rebbe. “Every Shabbos, someone else davens from the amud. One sings litvishe tunes, others sing Carlebach niggunim, and a third just recites a dry nusach. But the Rav is on fire — you can’t even gaze at his face.”

After davening, he’ll grab a few hands and burst into a dance in honor of Shabbos. From there, he continues to a long, crowded Shabbos meal in his home. At least 30 guests are part of the average seudah, and toward the end, more people come in. It’s an amazing mosaic of yarmulkes and haircuts.

“The most fascinating thing about the seudah,” a family member notes, “are the ‘landings’ the Rav makes from the heights he’s soared to. While his soul soars with the holiness of Shabbos, he also makes sure to taste and comment on every dish, and of course, constantly thanks the Rebbetzin for working to prepare it all.”

Then his eyes close and his soul begins to sing. Another niggun, another devar Torah.

The casual atmosphere continues on Shabbos day. “For years, no one thought that it was necessary to give the Rav a regular aliyah,” the family member continues. “He never demanded it, of course. The change happened when one week, his oldest brother, Rav Shmuel Auerbach ztz”l, came to visit him for Shabbos. He was horrified to see this and demanded of the gabbaim that the Rav must get shlishi each Shabbos.”

Up and Down

This combination of rav, teacher, maggid shiur, and father begins before dawn and continues all day. “When you come into the kollel in the morning, you see him sitting like everyone else, in his tallis kattan. He goes up and down in his level of learning without flinching. One hour he can be giving a shiur klali that is lamdanus, attended by many rabbanim from Bnei Brak. A few minutes later, he’ll be teaching basics of Chumash to newcomers.”

“Do you want the bottom line?” a fellow with a motorcycle helmet in his hand asks. “Over the years, hundreds of people have passed through this building. And these are types who don’t concede quickly. Find me one person who has a negative thing to say. On the other hand, don’t call him a rebbe, because it’s so not characteristic of him. Really, it’s better if you don’t call him anything but his name.”

But a rebbe he is, reflecting the light of Torah received from his father, the kedushah of the rebbe whose beis medrash he leads, and the ahavas Yisrael that courses through this community, mixing silence and song to lift Jews ever higher.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 864)

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